Morris Sheriff talks immigration, gangs, pot, the drug war and Korean nukes

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Morris County Sheriff James Gannon has no plans to deputize his officers to round up undocumented immigrants–for now.

But gangs are on his radar screen. A push to legalize pot gives him pause. And he worries a lot more about heroin and prescription painkillers than the threat of North Korean nukes landing in our backyard.

Morris Sheriff James Gannon speaks at Morristown's Grand Café, Nov. 30, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morris Sheriff James Gannon speaks at Morristown’s Grand Café, Nov. 30, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Gannon fielded questions during a wide-ranging overview of his first year as sheriff, at Thursday’s luncheon of the Morristown Women in Business.

“I think we have the most sophisticated military in the world. I think we’re in good hands there. I really do,” Gannon said, responding to a listener’s concerns about Kim Jong-un’s latest long-range missile test.

The Morris County Tourism Bureau, celebrating 20 years–all under the leadership of Leslie Bensley and her distaff staff–sponsored the event at the Grand Café in Morristown. Also featured: Michelle Reyes, executive director of Mrs. Wilson’s Halfway House, a Morristown nonprofit that helps women recover from substance abuse.

“Mrs. Wilson’s has saved hundreds and hundreds of lives,” said Women in Business Co-Founder Mary Dougherty, a trustee of the facility.

‘FROM BROKEN BONES TO BROKEN HEARTS’

Reyes and Gannon both said they are busy dealing with the opioid epidemic sweeping Morris County and America.

Some 79 residents of Morris County–one of America’s wealthiest counties–have died from overdoses so far this year. That’s nearly as many fatal overdoses as in Newark, Gannon said.

Michelle Reyes, executive director of Mrs. Wilson's Halfway House, addresses the Morristown Women in Business, Nov. 30, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Michelle Reyes, executive director of Mrs. Wilson’s Halfway House, addresses the Morristown Women in Business, Nov. 30, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Heroin is far more potent today than when he started his police career in 1980, he said, noting the painkiller fentanyl is 50 times stronger than morphine.

Some three-quarters of addicts he encounters say they got hooked on painkillers, he said.

“They will say it went from a broken bone or a broken tooth to a broken heart,” Gannon said.

Up to half of the 3,100 new admissions to the Morris County Jail each year are addicts, estimated the Sheriff, who created a “Hope” wing at the jail to provide an array of rehabilitation programs, along with educational and referral services to help recovered addicts re-enter society. 

The jail maintains partnerships with 50 employers, from fast food restaurants to landscapers, who hire discharged inmates, Gannon said. A county I.D. card program also is invaluable to former prisoners trying to start anew, he said.

Since April, a mobile unit called Hope One has brought referral services and free Narcan overdose antidote kits to 80 neighborhoods across Morris County, he added.

Reducing addiction should reduce burglaries and other crimes that go with it, said the Sheriff, whose operation includes a bomb squad, SWAT team and 16-dog K-9 unit.

 ‘LET’S SEE IF THERE’S A NEED FIRST’

President Trump made immigration crackdowns a centerpiece of his campaign. Gannon, elected as a Republican last year, said he sees no need right now to seek immigration enforcement powers for his officers under the federal 287(g) program.

“It’s under review,” Gannon said. “Let’s see if there’s a need first. If the immigration authorities are coming in and they’re satisfied and we’re satisfied that they’re dealing with the people who are here illegally, then let’s leave that like that.”

The former Boonton cop, who has served in the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office and on  the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, emphasized that his department will cooperate when federal authorities request assistance.

Morris Sheriff James Gannon addresses the Morristown Women in Business, Nov. 30, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morris Sheriff James Gannon addresses the Morristown Women in Business, Nov. 30, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

He praised a decade-old directive from the state Attorney General that authorizes investigators to question immigration status of intoxicated drivers and persons suspected of serious crimes–and bars scrutinizing crime victims, witnesses and complainants.

Without such protection, Gannon said, immigrants never would report crimes.

“Politically charged rhetoric” should not surround 287(G), he asserted. “This is real life stuff. These are people that are all affected by this. You have to handle it right.”

MS-13, STONED DRIVERS

Asked about gangs, Gannon said the county jail holds Bloods, Crips and MS-13 members, many of whom were caught bringing drugs from Paterson.

“We do have gangs around here. They’re not in a real big presence,” nor are they as sophisticated as gangs in Union and Essex counties, he said. Still, “we’re watching them, we have a pretty decent handle on who they are and what they’re doing.”

Legalizing recreational marijuana, a proposal supported by Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, concerns Gannon. He considers it a gateway to harder drugs, and fears that stoned motorists might “mow down kids at the bus stop.”

The good news in all this, he said, is that Morris County’s law enforcement community is top-notch and shares information.

“You live in a great place, where you’re well protected. You’re in good shape,” Gannon said.

A little vigilance, especially during the holidays, never hurts, either.

“This is what I tell my daughter: Listen, when you’re out in the community, be careful. No one’s your friend. Put your head on a swivel… just be conscious. And you’ll be fine.”

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